Friday, October 19, 2018

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh's Perfect for Runners
My first ever visit to Pittsburgh offered insights into an America that I rarely encounter, and yet, one that we are all too aware lurks around every corner. I was in Pittsburgh the week following the senate hearings for the new Supreme Court Justice. And yet, I found people whose lives could not have been less connected to the drama of their politicians in Washington if they had tried. As a gritty, one time thriving industrial center, Pittsburgh is a city in transition, and with that, displays a growing emphasis of the divisions between rich and poor.
Carrie Furnace from the Homestead
I ventured out to Carrie furnaces and what is left of Homestead where the steel strikes took place in 1892. As is often the case with old blast furnaces and steel mills, they were located outside of the city and weren’t easy to get to. The journey to Rankin on buses and walking through the surrounding areas gave me plenty of opportunity to observe the social results of industrial decline. The American economy may be booming, but for many of the people I encountered, there was no sign of prosperity on the horizon. I asked people sitting on their porches with broken glass in the windows and overgrown gardens for directions to the furnace that it turned out was less than a mile away. They had no idea of what I was talking about. Once there, it was wonderful to see the great things that Rivers of Steel are doing with the mines. Their activities and tours tick the obligatory boxes of both reaching out to the community as well as educating visitors on the history of mining and milling. They run art classes using the materials of Pittsburgh industry – keeping the culture and history of industry alive in the region—have open days, stage concerts, talks, and guided tours. But getting there meant confrontation with the heartbreaking reality of America.

On the other end of the economic scale, Pittsburgh is still dominated by the Titans of Steel and Industry. There’s no mistaking who built the city: Carnegie, Mellon, Heinz, and families such as Rooney and Frick. Their wealth dominates the very skyline of the city, with their names displayed on the buildings, and when they weren’t, it’s clear their success defines them. The magnificent US Steel Tower in Grant Street with its 840 ft of exposed corten steel made at the Homestead works being a case in point. It stands tall and proud, the icon of Pittsburgh’s success. I understand that the family businesses all adhere to a philanthropic mission, but one can’t help noticing their dramatic contrast with the world surrounding the manufacturing plants.
Warhol - in the space between abstract and figurative
I was disappointed by the Warhol museum, perhaps because I have been spoiled by recent exhibitions at the Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. I appreciated the crowds on a Sunday afternoon, telling me that the museum was alive and well. But presumably for the interest of the crowds, the exhibition installation was of a certain genre.  It was possible to appreciate his enormous creativity and his neverending curiosity, always ready to experiment in a new medium, to discover new ways of making his point. One thing that I love most about Warhol is how he was a fine artist – some of his photographs and even the paintings have a passion and ethereality that is otherwise antithetical to his renown as the don of mass cultural vision. This side of Warhol’s art is more difficult to identify in what is effectively the fun house atmosphere at the Warhol museum. The emphasis is on Warhol’s work as entertainment with interactive displays, crayons and paper for kids, an opportunity to sit before a camera and enjoy 15 minutes of fame, sit back and watch Empire and Sleep as if they are images on a museum wall, and other such activities. I missed the side of Warhol the artist that is necessarily omitted by the museum’s display.
Otherwise, I loved running along the Allegheney River. The views were amazing and the blue skies always a reminder of what they are not, that is, filled with the fires of the steel mills. Many of the local people I met were delightful, showing what I deemed a nearly mid-western friendliness mixed with east coast open mindedness and worldliness. There were also interesting, experimental art exhibitions with works by young and emerging artists, indicating that Pittsburgh is a city on the move. The cost of living and the available spaces would surely make it an attractive option to the more economically prohibitive New York. That said, Pittsburgh still has a way to go before becoming a cultural capital or artistic mecca. Though it definitely warrants a “watch this space” sticker, I hope that it also strives to grow in the social equality and justice espoused but not always practiced by the most esteemed of its industrialist ancestors.

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